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Archeology

Fascinating new theories about the disappearance of Greenland’s Vikings

By Staff

  • Hvalsey church The ruins of a Norse church in the Eastern settlement. Hvalsey church is the location of the last written record of the Norse settlement in Greenland, a 1408 wedding. Photo/Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license

The old theory about the mysterious disappearance of the Vikings that settled Greenland in the 10th century was roughly like this: when the climate got colder the Norse did not adapt, refused to learn hunting techniques from the Inuit and eventually all ended up dead in the 15th century.

science_cover.gifOn the cover Science November issue 2016.

A cover story published in the November issue of Science magazine, however, paints a fascinating and much more complex picture.

Greenland was settled by Vikings from Iceland in the 10th century, beginning with the voyage of Erik the Red from Breiðafjörður bay in west Iceland in 985. The Norse settlement was concentrated in two main settlements. The larger settlement, Eystribyggð (e: Eastern settlement) was near the southern tip of Greenland and Vestribyggð (e: Western settlement), near Nuuk, some 6-700 km (370-430 miles) to the north. A smaller Miðbyggð (e: Middle settlement), slightly north of Eystribyggð has been discovered by archaeologists, but no written records exist about this settlement. 

According to the feature in Science new excavations, over the last decade, across the North Atlantic have forced archaeologists to revise some of the long-held views.

"We used to think of Norse as farmers who hunted. Now, we consider them hunters who farmed," says archeologist Thomas McGovern in the magazine.

The new findings and data suggest that “the Greenland Norse focused less on livestock and more on trade, especially in walrus ivory, and that for food they relied more on the sea than on their pastures. There's no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest,” reports Science. 

Contrary to what was previously believed about why the Norse settled Iceland and Greenland, the new theory is that the main magnet was the hunt for ivory, not a search for new farmland.

Walrus ivory was extremely valuable in medieval Europe and was used in very expensive apparel and objects like the famous Lewis chess set.

Read more: 2200 year old walrus bones suggest the most famous medieval chess set might be Icelandic in origin

According to Science the market for Greenland walrus ivory tumbled in Europe at the same time as colder climate was making the existence much more difficult for the Norse in Greenland. Ice clogged the seas farther south and for longer each year and data show that seas became stormier in the 15th century. 

Scholars now believe that the challenge for survival drove "a constant emigration back to Iceland and Europe”, bringing the last Norse settlement in Greenland “to a close peacefully, without starvation or death by Inuit."

For the whole story read Science’s fantastic feature.

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